Organisational culture

Organisational culture

See the mice in their million hordes from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads

David Bowie 1

sausage sizzle safetySafety culture like many soft system change management elements is somewhat vague and subject to definitional dilemma. It is often envisaged as a predictable and concrete entity that is easily managed and measured in isolation using psychometric safety culture surveys. This merely disguises the blame dichotomy and fails to provide a coherent explanation for malfunctioning technological systems. It often creates a cemetery of categorical data and populates project risk registers with an inordinate amount of emotional engineering or abstract nostrums and subliminally implies culpability. 23

Strawberry fields forever

Safety culture is merely a component of a much broader organisational culture, which requires careful consideration of soft systems change management processes. Any attempts to control and manage such an abstract and evasive concept may well result in undesirable consequences. This demands extreme caution using a process and evidence based transdisciplinary approach to remove much of the conjecture and supposition. It must target upstream with an emphasis on better design, restructuring and changing business systems and processes to dissolve emergent issues. This is reflected in Gibson’s ecopsychology and affordance theory and much of the work from Ackoff. It also aligns with the principles of operational excellence and unique characteristics of high reliability organisations. 48

There is an intricate relationship between safety culture, structure and process and several quintessential concepts and selected tools are critically analysed by Taylor, which includes Hudson’s cultural maturity model. Hofstede’s framework for cross cultural communication describes how workplace values are influenced by culture at national and organisational levels using cultural dimensions theory. Much of the discussion ignites the nature or nurture debate and rekindles C P Snow’s controversial Rede lecture covering the Two Cultures. Three distinctive cultural levels in organisational structures are identified by Schein and further extensive and rigorous analysis is provided by Cameron and Quinn. The intricate relationship between culture, structure and process is further explored by Antonsen and Guldenmund……..Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see. 925

The legislative framework adopts a preventive, systematic and collaborative approach, which is reflected via ISO 45001:2018 Occupational health and safety management systems – Requirements with guidance for use and ISO 31000:2018 Risk management – Guidelines. It provides a formal structure, which is usually supplemented by core business processes to develop an organisational safety culture and tackle the safe working environment or safer person dichotomy, which is reinforced via the legislative hierarchy of controls. The safe place approach uses social engineering techniques to create an informed culture with increasing trust and authentic inspirational attributes such as learning, flexibility, impartiality and genuine reporting. Safer person tactics place an inordinate reliance on behaviourism, which dehumanises or transfigures people into a reducible quotient of a system’s inputs and outputs like a sterile accounts ledger. 2635

Both approaches embrace a didactic and superficial definition of culture as……The way we do things around here, which is compounded by an infallible dependence on rational decision making. The binary discourse is exacerbated by an unwavering quest for perfection or operational excellence using blanket absolutes such as zero harm. Its inordinate objectivism disregards transdisciplinary learning in favour of indoctrination and merely involves counting how many sheep we have left using descriptive categorical data. This is antagonised by unsubstantiated cause effect ideology without any measuring, inferential statistics or hypothesis testing in a futile attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. 3647

A safety cult has emerged and embarked on a futile religious crusade with the denial of fallibility to eliminate risk. It relies heavily on propaganda and pious judgemental terminology featuring vague descriptors such as unsafe or dangerous. A mechanistic reductive paradigm of positivism has evolved with the worship of sacred mantras, religious artefacts and establishment of unachievable targets to create a dysfunctional safety culture of learned helplessness. Its myopic focus conceives decision making as purely rational, which vilifies risk and categorises harm as stupidity. It disregards any notion of collective unconscious or arational judgement and is littered with sinister totalitarian objectives. An obsession with compliance, enforcement, crime and punishment is evident, which is bereft of any sophistication. Its deification of objects usurps creativity, extirpates learning and drives the culpability carousel. This curtails liberty and…Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for those who think differently. 4858

Looking through a glass onion

The psychological or safer person approach places an emphasis on employee perception and management of safety. It targets attitude and behaviour towards risk and is often referred to as the safety climate within an organisation. The engineering safe place paradigm is more concerned with the influence of hard systems management and a reliance on formal organisational structures, policies, procedures using higher order control mechanisms. This promotes a no person no problem taxonomy using engineering and safe design techniques to reduce the likelihood and consequences of human error and improve safety performance and culture. However, it should also be viewed from an anthropological or social perspective using cultural theory of risk. 5967

This provides a more sophisticated view, which explores the intricate relationship of culture with its specific environment and it becomes a component of a much broader and deeper organisational culture. It is an abstract concept that transforms as people establish new groups to create different cultures with tangible social consequences. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of culture is the dynamic influence of its many enigmatic or unconscious phenomena that guide or constrain the behaviour of particular groups via mutual conventions. Nonetheless, a meaningful analysis of complex or clandestine organisational features cannot be accomplished using a superficial or shallow definition. 6872

Culture can be defined as a pattern of shared basic assumptions, which are collectively acknowledged to successfully challenge exogenous and endogenous risks and generate an implicitly acceptable response. Furthermore, leadership and culture are conceptually intertwined and essentially two sides of the same coin. If a crisis or dispute arises that threatens survival it requires effective leaders at every structural level of the organisation to address the situation. 7374

Culture typically exists at three principal levels and includes artefacts, espoused values and underlying assumptions. This often mirrors shared learning experiences or collective coherence, which eventually determines much of the group’s behaviour and establishes a socialisation process or community of practice. The incidental learning or tacit knowledge is grasped by novices, apprentices or future generations and becomes an implicit reflection of organisational culture. 7581

Confusion surrounding the perception of organisational culture often occurs from a failure to establish the precise level where it manifests, which ranges from an overt superficial patina to the quintessential deeply embedded and often unconscious basic assumptions. Between these extremes lies a myriad of espoused values and beliefs that organisations, groups and individuals use to depict its culture. The basic assumptions are entrenched values or shibboleths and transgressions are often considered reckless or even sacrilegious, which usually leads to excommunication and dismissal. 8287


Artefacts are readily visible throughout most organisations but are often a superficial veneer of respectability, which are easy to observe yet difficult to decipher. These include many obvious features such as indoctrinating inductions, warning signs, safety slogans, rituals, ceremonies, attire, etiquette and official language including professional terms of endearment or conventional dialect. It establishes an esprit de corps although it is quite a complex exercise corroborating artificial or ambiguous symbols with basic underlying assumptions and further extensive analysis is required at much deeper levels. 8893

Espoused beliefs and values

These include corporate policies, good governance principles, organisational codes of conduct, standards and procedures. It is quite critical how an organisation communicates its philosophy, strategies and objectives or problems will arise when the aspirations of its leaders are incongruous with basic assumptions. Inconsistencies frequently emerge throughout industrial safety via vacuous statements such as zero harm or safety is our number one priority yet the mercenary Friedman doctrine on corporate social responsibility often prevails. 94102

Underlying assumptions

These often form around deeper dimensions of human existence and are generally considered as incontestable or sacrosanct. They usually evolve following solutions to specific problems, which have been repeatedly successful and a hypothesis supported only by instinct or value becomes reality. Individuals and groups strive for stability or meaning and will frequently distort or manipulate data to avoid changing basic assumptions, which is an extremely tedious challenge. It is fraught with complexity and generates incalculable frustration….I told you about strawberry fields, you know the place where nothing is real. 103106

Zero vision

The field of occupational health and safety is in a crisis of its own making and has lost any skerrick of integrity because of its bad faith and lack of principles. It has been operating in an echo chamber for so long that its acolytes only hear each other’s propaganda. Meanwhile, the silent majority has abandoned any prospect of significant or meaningful social reform to stem the holocaust of workplace injury, illness and disease. 107109

Propaganda involves the ideological manipulation of ideas using indoctrination to support and defend political interests via suppression and exclusion. It relies heavily on naivety, obedience, compliance and lack of discernment to deceive, convince and confuse the laity. This is ineffective without communication and the transfer of knowledge, which usually involves distortion of the truth with no respect for integrity. Indoctrination inculcates beliefs using devious tactics with an inordinate focus on power, control, fear and deception. This technique is often confused with learning and it is evident throughout countless workplace safety inductions via beguiling mantras such as…..Zero harm, all accidents are preventable and safety is a choice you make. 110111

In recent years, the ubiquitous and pestilential concept of zero harm has been introduced into corporate safety strategies and provokes heated debate to rival the nature or nurture polemic. It emerges in operational excellence with its pursuit of perfection via continuous improvement and the aspirational goal of zero defects. This is a symbolic gesture and soft systems change management process, which focuses on meaning and culture in organisations. It enables leaders and managers to shape values and beliefs and build spirit through ritual and ceremony. Vision zero is another example of emotional engineering, which is relentlessly promoted by statutory authorities, industry associations, peak representative bodies and executive leaders. It creates a calculative culture and furtively advocates deregulation. This focuses on the absence of injury or harm and cultivates pettifogging and political chicanery, which involves moving goalposts or manipulating data to meet project performance indicators. It eventually erodes trust and destroys motivation, learning and legitimacy. Vision zero is an asinine shibboleth that displays zero vision and creates binary black and white oppositional dialogue. There are no shades of grey and the adversarial fiat………………If you are not with us, you are against us often prevails. 112121

Organisations that adopt this blind faith ideology are reminiscent of the sepulchral city in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. An alabaster exterior of perfection disguises a crypt of rotting flesh with recurring themes of blame, fear, retribution, despair and anomie festering below the surface. It is merely a superficial quest for moral high ground that depicts a palliative chimera of humanitarian compassion and soteriology but the reality is quite different. It surreptitiously disguises deregulation and a laissez faire doctrine that creates absolute power, which corrupts absolutely. 122124

A brutal totalitarian regime prevails ruled by martinets who are deceptively portrayed as torchbearers. However, they are merely socially autistic mercenaries with a treacherous tyrannical temperament underpinned by hubris, power and control. The discourse of zero harm is littered with authority, absolutes, regulations, compliance and enforcement. It is bereft of any flexibility or discretion and extenuating circumstances are almost immaterial. This centralises supremacy with a complete disregard for human fallibility, continual improvement and the complexities of decision making, which eventually extirpates learning, ownership, care and integrity…..Nothing can come of nothing, said King Lear. 125128

Zero harm is redolent of Orwellian newspeak or doublethink, which intentionally obscures and distorts the meaning of words using anodyne officious jargon to masquerade hidden agendas. It is often supplemented by a deluge of confected grief with an interminable reparation process. This diffuses and defuses outrage into divisive and innocuous channels of bureaucracy, which socially engineers the laity into passivity, obedience and compliance. The ideology has achieved cult status and the blind faith was displayed in all its fervent splendour at the recent World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in Singapore. It was pure political theatre and corroborated by a Vision Zero theme which……Aims to inculcate a mindset that all injuries and ill-health arising from work are preventable. 129132

The Vision Zero sermon was piously and unremittingly promoted throughout the entire crusade with faith based statements, which were supplemented by allegory and colossal billboard iconography. An unrelenting indoctrination process involved total absorption via standard social psychological techniques such as group think, affect heuristic and conformity bias. Its fundamentalist ideology was underpinned by fear of harm and supported by semantic conformance and obedience using language of perfection and intolerance……If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands. 133136

Most propaganda displays familiar traits of oppressive ideology and the zero vision juggernaut is certainly no exception. The lexicon is extremely political, adversarial and devoutly religious. It is littered with emotive and iconic terminology and much like war, its first casualty is the truth, which is often disguised via vague, bewildering and contradictory statements. Its utopian promises and absolute descriptors disregard fallibility and the ultimate trajectory is dehumanisation. This absurd ideology with its linguistic design restricts freedom of thought and discernment. It generates cynicism with its inordinate focus on objects and statistics, which eventually destroys learning……Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and gives an appearance of solidity to pure wind. 137139

The Safety Institute of Australia and its bedwetting acolytes contributed to the doublethink enigma with a formal presentation to promote successful examples of zero harm strategies. However, somewhat paradoxically, it maintains an agnostic stance on the ideology. Opposition to zero harm especially amongst corporate behemoths, generates emotional outrage and antagonists are categorised as heretics or infidels and excommunicated from the fold. Any skerrick of dissent is ruthlessly crushed with clinical totalitarian determination and ambivalence or denial is considered sacrilegious and tantamount to corporate suicide. 140141

Zero harm is often supplemented with additional organisational development techniques, which include role negotiation, inter group confrontation, organisational mirroring, fish bowling, team building and cultural surveys. Like many soft system features, it is rather vague and subject to definitional dilemma. It is a safety slogan, which is perceived as a numerical target and is embedded in accident theory with its ideology of behaviourism and miasma of blame, fear and retribution. 142145

Vision zero is incompatible with quality management principles and several of the fourteen points for the transformation of management. These include avoid using numerical targets or quotas and remove slogans imploring employees to achieve unrealistic goals. An obsessive pursuit of perfection or infallibility creates maladaptive anxiety, pettifogging and apophenia, which cultivates under reporting and avoidance. It also amplifies trivial issues, exaggerates criticism and is inconsistent with Kaizen principles. After achieving a target of zero harm it is quite reasonable to ask where to next? ………The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection. 146151

Count your blessings instead of sheep

The aphorism…What gets measured gets done is often reiterated during discussions on performance indicators but it is somewhat naïve to believe the establishment of goals is a simple and objective activity. It places an inordinate emphasis on objects with targets that can be easily measured and eventually debilitates and dehumanises society leaving behind a data cemetery full of trivia. Indeed, the elusive attributes of wisdom, loyalty, discernment and other ethical qualities are often scorned and categorised as gratuitous impediments in the current ruthless neoliberal climate of casino capitalism. This narrow inhumane focus destroys ethereal features such as creativity, imagination, motivation, compassion, integrity and care and creates irrevocable and counterproductive consequences. 152155

Goal setting is a complex exercise covering several dimensions, which consist of three principal states that require a diverse range of measurement techniques. Goals normally adopt a promotional or preventive focus and are interactive and competitive. Lower order goals are often easier to establish and can be measured quantitatively, whereas middle order targets are determined semi-quantitatively. Higher order goals are invariably prodigious, aspirational and generally intangible. 156157

During the allocation of goals it is worth evoking that actions generate side effects and values are caught not taught. Most behaviour is generated subliminally and every conscious goal has an unconscious corollary, which affects human, physical and financial resources. A relentless pursuit of perfection with lower order goals can generate measurement myopia, analysis paralysis and symptoms of apophenia. This includes overfitting, gambler’s fallacy, answer shopping or confirmation bias. It also advocates single loop training and Pavlovian conditioning and a calculative tenacity evolves. Statistics are manipulated to meet goals and rather than evaluate what is beneficial, the emphasis transfers to trivial parameters that can be easily measured and the metric gets managed instead of performance. 158162

In occupational health and safety, the traditional SMART approach when establishing lower order goals is conveniently disregarded in favour of aspirational, unachievable and absolute ideological targets such as zero harm. This perfectionist language requires omnipotent and omniscient attributes and is a recipe for depression, anxiety and frustration. It grooms failure, denies fallibility and eventually extirpates learning, wisdom and discernment. 163


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Bernard Corden

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17 Replies to “Organisational culture”

  1. Bernard you’ve just proved how complex and wicked ‘culture’ is! Great piece and one I’ll be reading again with vigour. Hopefully others will value the depth of which you have explored here. Thanks

  2. Dear Gabrielle,

    Many thanks. Maybe it should be entitled The Magical Mystery Tour. I was a James Reason acolyte and religiously embraced the safe place or safer person dichotomy, which is similar to approaching an and/or gate in an event tree analysis diagram. Then I discovered this blog, which introduced me to the anthropological and social aspects with Edgar Schein and Mary Douglas et al, ecopsychology and wicked problems.

    In my younger days I used to keep my extensive music collection in alphabetical order but it restricted listening to several favourite artists now its all on iTunes in shuffle mode…..But the fool on the hill sees the sun going down and the eyes in his head see the world spinning round.

  3. Holy moly Bernard what a literary whirlwind! That was a fantastic read however I had to admit my intellectual defeat during the Zero Harm section after about my 15th word googling and just continued to read in the hopes I’d pick up the meanings with context, which was surprisingly successful. Like Gabrielle I’m going to have to read this again to ensure full comprehensive but thank you and I hope you realise there’s a book yearning within this style and literary character.
    Cheers AT.

  4. Bernard

    Culture is vague in the safety industry not because it is vague but because safety has no breadth or sophistication in understanding it. Safety projects a behaviourist/instrumentalist understanding of culture which is at best a distortion of what culture is. It is certainly not ‘what we do around here’. You captured the simplistic understanding of culture in your opening paragraph. Again, I don’t think culture is either anabstract or evasive concept but rather poorly understood by a profoundly mis-educated sector that understands very little outside of STEM thinking.

    I think you are right about a safety cult, as is evidenced by the depth of soteriological, religious and cultic language, discourse and symbolism in the sector. Having worked in both the church and safety sectors I would say the church is far more secular than safety.

    If we think of culture semiotically we undertake a much more sophisticated understanding of culture than currently exists in safety. If culture is both the collective unconscious and the semiosphere then safety is so far off the mark it has no capability of addressing cultural reality due to its simplistic definitions and quest to control something that is not mechanistic in a mechanical way. In this regard I think whilst your focus on artefacts, shared assumptions and espoused values are admirable, I would suggest there is much more to culture than these. Indeed, an understanding of mythology/symbols is critical for cultural understanding. The most profound myth/symbols of dumb down safety is of course zero. There is no more significant myth/symbols that embodies the ignorance of safety than this discourse.

    The SIA doesn’t maintain any paradox on zero and is certainly not ‘agnostic’ in the matter. It wants to rather have it cake and eat it too, but has so little semiotic understanding of much, doesn’t realize its own ideology or the enculturating power of the zero myth. It is not a slogan, nor a goal, it is neither a target or aspiration. Zero is an ideological language that stands in total contradiction to the realities of human fallibility and vulnerability. It is a propagandist language used to justify brutalism in the quest for the absolute over the finite. Zero symbolizes all that is defective and dysfunctional in safety. It demonstrates the simplistic binary mindset of safety and its complete ignorance of culture as a wicked problem. Safety is so wedded to the archetype of zero that it cannot question, listen or learn.

    ‘Living is easy with eyes closed
    misunderstanding all you see’

  5. Dear Adrian,

    Many thanks. It is part of a book, which at last count was up to almost 93, 000 words. I am in the process of adding another couple of pages that describe the emergence of catabolic capitalism following the demise of neoliberalism since 2008 and its impact on the environment, safety, public and mental health. Craig Collins from California in the US has written an interesting book entitled Toxic Loopholes covering its impact.

    As growth stops and austerity measures are implemented to stem the bleeding neoliberalism starts feeding on itself in its relentless pursuit of profit. It manifests with increasing psychosocial issues and the emergence industrial diseases such as black lung and silicosis.

    There is some fabulous material on the Counterpunch, Truthout and Henry Giroux websites:

    1. Of course and Giroux and other post Marxists are on safety reading lists too, which is why Safety has no understanding of ethics or social politics. Fromm is essential reading too especially on the revolution of hope and especially for understanding the apocalypic language in safety.

  6. Dear Rob,

    Many thanks for your comments and additional fuel, especially about the church being more secular than safety. Now you have sent me down the semiotics rabbit warren and I will spend the next few weeks reading Saussure, Barthes and Bakhtin and many of the other articles from your library.

    There was certainly no critical thinking applied to zero harm or vision zero but it may have been a deliberately deployed to ensure the safety juggernaut self-destructed or lost its integrity, in which case the intent was quite successful.

  7. Bernard, a fascinating read and it stimulates other learning as I seek to understand terms and references. There is a fundamental issue in that many organisations have goal and target setting as the means for establishing control and direction of effort. The problem is that often these are conjured out of thin air without any regard to the capabilities of the system of work to produce them. Examples being a budget reduction of 15% because last year we managed 7% and we want to set a stretch target and when using figures we neatly gravitate towards any that end in a 0 or a 5. Another is Zero Harm, because like you and Rob have eloquently discussed it fits with a corporate governance that wants to show commitment to caring and who would want to say our target is a realistic 55 serious harms and 5 deaths per annum? Then the focus can be shifted to compliance with this greatest of all goals, BUT, it may be that your processes will produce a number of incidents that are independent of any one person’s actions and behaviours because the causes are inherent in the system. I was discussing elsewhere with someone the plotting of accident rate data from 10 years and how using principles developed by Walter Shewhart the number of incidents fell within 3 Standard deviation of the average without fail – indication that this system was stable. None of the incidents was desirable but the use of SPC shows it is predictable if the management of variation is understood. This though requires a degree of understanding of numbers and variation that is beyond many in management, in fact it will be discredited because it does not follow principles of cause and effect that are so cherished but have little relationship to the real world. Instead the effort is spent on promotion of what looks like the answer and securing obedience and conformance. The simplest antidote to the madness is a question by what method? I will certainly say no accidents are desirable but unless there is evidence to the contrary such as a control chart would show zero might fall outside the control limits and therefore unless the system is changed impossible to achieve – my wanting to want it and my ability to achieve it are 2 different things..

  8. Bernard, I think you need to throw in a good reading of Yuri Lotman in there too. Of course, ‘Universe of the Mind, A Semiotic Theory of Culture’ will not be on any reading list in any safety curriculum on culture. When you only have a behaviourist definition of culture you apparently know everything. When one ignores the mythological/symbolic dimensions of culture one throws away 90% of cultural understanding especially in all the history of religions and metaphysics. No wonder safety doesn’t know its a cult.

  9. Dear Charles,

    Many thanks for your response. I can vaguely recall an article from The Spectator penned by the late Denis Dutton from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch and editor of Arts and Letters Daily many years ago.

    It described the increasing prevalence of worthless descriptive statistics, which were considered better than no data at all. Science and scientism are indeed quite different and the catabolic big data Smoke and Mirrors or Sales and Marketing juggernaut, which has also infiltrated safety, has many questions to answer.

  10. Dear Rob,

    Many thanks. I have never read anything by Yuri Lotman and sure it will be another valuable piece in the jigsaw. My only foray into semiotics was somewhat superficial and involved reading The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard. It is a fascinating subject and I can recall an enthralling SBS documentary covering the life of David Ogilvie some years ago.

  11. Bernard, if one sees religion,symbols and myth enmeshed as a cultural indicator then everything from dance, gesture, sound, visuals, poetics and feelings/emotions compose the semiosphere. I wouldn’t forget Jung either in “Man and His Symbols’ which is a free download. You will find two books by Lotman in the students Dropbox, including the one I recommended. Amazing how many wars have been fought for a symbol/myth, only dumb down safety thinks they have no significance.

  12. It is perhaps a challenge too far to engage in a discussion about what culture may actually be as in a consideration of the work of Lotman if the most readily available definition and perhaps the start and finish point for such a discussion is the view that ‘Culture? Its what we do around here.’

    1. Charles, indeed. The satisfaction of Safety with dumb down explains the WHS curriculum, the SIA BoK and why 1930s knowledge guides the industry.

  13. What is so fascinating with this SafetyRisk blog is that it had me reading about Leni Riefenstahl until the early hours of this morning.

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